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Interactive storytelling

February 20, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

Do you remember those puppet theatres where every child is shouting at the puppets, warning them of danger and telling them what to do? Those feelings are very similar to the reactions we have when we’re reading a novel or watching a film, and we wish we could tell our favourite characters what decisions we think they should make. These impulses are in every reader, regardless of age, although our way of expressing them inevitably changes as we get older.

In fiction everything is possible, and it can be fascinating to imagine different paths for our heroes, the same way we like to wonder how different decisions would have affected our own lives. Although we cannot go back in time to try out the ‘what ifs’ in our lives, we can certainly do it in fiction. 

This is the simple premise of interactive or maze stories, in which readers are asked to participate. Readers are given choices, typically at the end of the chapters, and they can make decisions for the characters. 

This kind of reading is not only interactive, but it is also non-linear. Non-linear storytelling can happen in a non-interactive book, in which flashback and foreshadowing techniques or embedded narratives can expand the story. What’s more, in our everyday reading practice, we often carry out non-linear reading practices. For example, when we start reading something online, we might want to check details, or references or new words. Or we may flick back through our book to check information or refresh our minds about plot twists. Essentially most of our reading is non-linear and a lot of it contains interactive elements.

Interactive storytelling has been used as a successful strategy in a wide range of disciplines outside educational contexts, such as psychology, cognitive studies, mediation and business communication. Development in digital technologies inspire more and more research into interactive storytelling, as our storytelling potential expands through the use of digital tools.

Let’s take a look at different types of interactive stories and see how we can use them in our English classes.

Some types of interactive stories

Game books

This is the most traditional type of interactive fiction. For example, the Choose Your Own Adventure books belong to this category.

The latest Helbling Readers, the Maze Readers written by Gavin Biggs, are based on the game book structure. There are three introductory chapters then the story alternates between sections the reader decides to read and more shared text. More on these readers in a future post.

Round-robin stories

These belong to the world of collaborative fiction with each author having to contribute with a piece of a story. This kind of storytelling is also popular among children.

A famous example of collaborative fiction is Good Omens (1990), written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. 

Digital interactive stories

Beautifully illustrated interactive stories are available on the Internet, combining a wide range of modalities such as sound, music, voice, still and moving images and written text. They also combine different types of media, for example photographs, drawings, animation and video art. Here graphic design, digital editing and traditional storytelling work together in creating the story experience.

Some famous digital projects:

Interactive films

Bandersnatch (2018) is an interactive episode in the Black Mirror TV series, created by Charlie Brooker and directed by David Slade. Viewers are asked to choose the next step the main character should take, which leads to viewing times ranging between 40 and 90 minutes.

Role-playing games

Role-playing games (RPG) are a form of oral interactive storytelling. The most classic ones are carried out through discussion among a group of people. An important feature of such games is that they are based on strict guidelines and rules. There is always a game master (GM), who decides the rules and the setting. The other participants act out roles in the story. RPGs have developed to have digital/video and live action formats.

How do interactive stories contribute to language learning?


First of all, teenagers are highly motivated to read a story in which they are asked to guess, predict and choose the path of the characters. Although a linear narrative can be engaging, a non-linear interactive story taps into different skills: they can make decisions and debate why they made those decisions. 

Critical thinking

They also get the readers to think deeply about the characters’ motivation in order to make their reading decisions, helping develop critical thinking and reasoning skills and empathy.

Classroom discussions

Students can compare the storylines based on their different decisions and ask each other what could have happened to their characters if they had taken different paths.

Inspiration to create stories

An interactive story can be mapped out in class. In a tree diagram, students can add to the whole story map and see how the different branches lead their characters to different places.